Africa File

A biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.   Each edition begins "At a Glance." Country-specific updates follow.{{authorBox.message}}

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Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

Salafi-jihadi groups, including Islamic State and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliates, are degrading and replacing governance in West Africa’s Sahel region. The recently released State Department “Country Reports on Terrorism” highlight the rapid escalation in Salafi-jihadi militant violence in the Sahel, particularly these groups’ ability to manipulate local ethnic conflicts to gain popular support. A series of major attacks on military and economic targets in Mali and Burkina Faso indicate that Salafi-jihadi groups are growing increasingly lethal and making progress in their long-term effort to drive out Western presence and degrade and replace local governments.

This trend will reverberate beyond the Sahel; local Salafi-jihadi groups underpin the global Salafi-jihadi movement and advance the goals of organizations such as the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s affiliates in West Africa pledged allegiance to its new leader, the successor to the late Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in early November.

The Islamic State affiliate in the Sahel, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), conducted a major attack on November 2 that showcased both an increase in ISGS capabilities and the ineffectiveness of current military-focused counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel. The assault on the Malian Army’s Indelimane camp in the Menaka region of northeastern Mali killed at least 53 Malian soldiers, one of the deadliest attacks in Mali to date. This attack is the latest in a series of deadlier-than-normal attacks in the Sahel and reflects several trends that underlie the Salafi-jihadi movement’s strengthening in this region.

  • ISGS has reached a new level of tactical capability that will enable it to conduct more demoralizing high-casualty attacks, strengthening the narrative that the Malian government is powerless to protect its people. The *Indelimane attack integrated several capabilities, reaching a new level of sophistication for ISGS. The group used mortar fire, attackers on motorcycles, and a truck bomb to breach and overrun the compound. ISGS also conducted surveillance, which included using small drones, to plan the attack.
  • ISGS’s integration with local and international Salafi-jihadi networks increases its effectiveness. ISGS sometimes cooperates with other Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel, including AQIM-affiliate Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), which has a longer record of attacking fortified bases in the region. This overlap in Salafi-jihadi networks facilitates the transfer of expertise. ISGS’s use of commercially available drones reflects Islamic State tactics in other theaters.
  • The Indelimane attack demonstrates an acute failure of a military-only counterterrorism approach. French and Nigerien forces cleared ISGS from the Menaka region in June, but the group has since returned as governance conditions remained unchanged. A Malian security source stated after the attack that the Malian Army cannot rely on the local population to help locate enemy positions.

Military-only approaches to counterterrorism, in the Sahel and elsewhere, fail because they do not account for Salafi-jihadi groups’ main goal: establishing governance. Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel have grown increasingly adept at exploiting local conditions such as ethnic conflict. This approach is particularly potent when vulnerable local populations are victimized by the state and security forces, allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to impose their will or even pose as these communities’ defenders.

The growing strength of the Salafi-jihadi movement is evident elsewhere in the Sahel. In Burkina Faso, an attack on a Canadian mining company convoy that killed 37 and injured 60 exposed the vulnerability of key economic positions as Salafi-jihadist and other armed groups compete for access to gold mining. In central Mali, JNIM is asserting control by terrorizing the population, destroying state institutions, and brokering a local cease-fire.

Unfortunately, this predominantly military counterterrorism approach is set to continue. Malian, Burkinabe, and French authorities announced the launch of offensive operations targeting Salafi-jihadi groups in response to recent attacks. Any gains from such operations will be temporary without policies to close the governance gaps and resolve the conflicts that Salafi-jihadi groups exploit. 

The Sahel is not the only part of northern Africa where Salafi-jihadi groups are on the rise. Critical Threats Project Research Manager Emily Estelle argues in RealClearDefense that the Russian intervention in Libya will worsen the conditions that strengthen the Islamic State and al Qaeda over time. Russia-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar cannot stabilize the country. Even if he takes control, Haftar’s repressive approach will worsen the popular grievances that fuel Salafi-jihadi insurgencies.

Read Further On:

West Africa

East Africa

 

 

At a Glance: The Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated October 29, 2019

Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding with the end of counter–Islamic State operations in Syria and the withdrawal of US troops in October 2019. This withdrawal sets conditions for the return of the Islamic State, even as the organization recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in US operations in late October. The US withdrawal has also damaged America’s reputation with current and potential counterterrorism partners wary of suffering the same fate as the abandoned Syrian Kurdish forces. The US administration also seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, a course that will likely be delayed rather than altered by the breakdown of talks with the Taliban. However, the Salafi-jihadi movement continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations. The return of African Salafi-jihadis from prisons in Syria will likely accelerate these trends.

The Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in the last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents over the next 12–18 months.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April, will continue to fuel the Salafi-jihadi comeback for at least the next several months, possibly allowing the Islamic State or al Qaeda to regain some of the territory they controlled before major operations against them from 2016 to 2019. The Islamic State’s comeback in Libya is part of its global effort to reconstitute capabilities after military defeats, an effort that the group’s late leader, Baghdadi, sought to galvanize in a September audio message. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is rapidly eroding, and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in the eyes of their people.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness — such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown.

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

West Africa

Mali and Burkina Faso

The Salafi-jihadi movement is expanding more rapidly in the western Sahel than in any other African region as communal violence and state fragility spread. The movement’s epicenter in this region is Mali. Salafi-jihadi groups are active in the country’s north and have spread into the country’s center, where ethnic-based violence has increased in the past two years. Neighboring Burkina Faso is destabilizing rapidly as Salafi-jihadi groups take root in its north and east. Several Salafi-jihadi factions are cooperating, particularly in the Mali–Burkina Faso border area, to drive out security forces and establish themselves as the de facto governing power. The violence is causing a humanitarian crisis that has included retaliatory massacres of civilians in central Mali and mass displacement in Burkina Faso. 

ISGS claimed responsibility for an attack on a Malian Army base in northeastern Mali’s Menaka region that killed more than 50 soldiers, signaling ISGS’s return to Menaka and increased lethality. The group used a truck bomb and artillery to breach and overrun the Indelimane base on November 1. It reportedly used drone surveillance to prepare for the attack. ISGS also claimed a roadside bombing that killed a French soldier in Menaka on the following day. Menaka is a historic hub of ISGS activity, but its operations there had declined following a French-Nigerien operation in June. This attack indicates that the effects of that operation were temporary and that ISGS has reestablished itself in Menaka and neighboring areas.

The Indelimane attack is the latest in a series of high-casualty attacks on military and economic targets in the Sahel. Militants attacked a convoy carrying employees of the Canadian mining company SEMAFO in eastern Burkina Faso on November 6. The attack killed and injured scores of civilians, causing the company to suspend its operations in the area. Violent incidents against mining companies have increased as insecurity spreads in Burkina Faso, including three others against SEMAFO in 2019. Other major attacks in recent weeks include a dual attack on Malian military positions near the Burkinabe border on September 30. (See Figure 1.)

Worsening security is causing backlash against national governments and foreign companies in the Sahel. The wives of soldiers killed in the September 30 attacks in Mali have protested insufficient support for Malian troops and criticized French and UN peacekeeping forces in Mali. Victims of the SEMAFO convoy attack in Burkina Faso have criticized Burkinabe authorities and SEMAFO for lack of support.

Figure 1. Major Salafi-Jihadi Attacks in the Sahel Since August 2019

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

In response to recent attacks, security forces are doubling down on a military response to the Salafi-jihadi threat. The Malian Army changed its operational posture by withdrawing from isolated camps near the Niger and Burkina Faso borders and launching a major counteroffensive against Salafi-jihadi groups in central Mali. The Burkinabe military is also intensifying its operations by partnering with French forces for a counterterrorism operation titled “Bourgou IV” in the shared border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The French defense minister announced that European special forces will assist Sahelian militaries in Operation Takuba beginning in 2020.

Forecast: The Malian Army’s response to recent attacks will backfire by increasing anti-government grievances among marginalized populations in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso. Salafi-jihadi groups may relocate or go to ground in response to military pressure but will resume infiltrating populations within the year, especially if security forces continue to withdraw from forward positions. Salafi-jihadi groups remain on track to establish de facto governance and ultimately a proto-state in the shared border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. (As of November 13, 2019)

The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWA) pledged allegiance to the group’s new leader following the death of Abubakr al Baghdadi. ISWA’s media office promotes activities by ISGS and the former Boko Haram splinter known as ISWA, which operates in the Lake Chad region. It released photosets from both groups. ISWA is the latest in a series of Islamic State affiliates that have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Quraishi. The Islamic State in Libya has notably failed to pledge so far, likely indicating that a series of American airstrikes in September disrupted the group’s media capabilities.

JNIM emir Iyad Ag Ghali participated in a coordinated al Qaeda media campaign by praising an attempted al Shabaab attack on an American base in Somalia. Ag Ghali also praised recent JNIM attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso in a November 9 statement. Al Qaeda’s General Command and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also praised the late September attack. This is Ag Ghali’s first public statement in 2019.

 

 

East Africa

The emir of al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s East African affiliate, appeared on video for the first time calling for attacks on US interests. Ahmad Umar, aka Abu Ubaidah, appearing with his face blurred, praised al Shabaab militants who attacked a US airbase in Somalia in late September. Al Qaeda’s General Command, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliate in the Sahel have praised the attack to highlight al Qaeda’s commitment to attacking Western interests. The video of Umar may also seek to dispel rumors of his ill health. This was Umar’s second public statement in two months after EDITORS' NOTE: CORRECTIONA previous version of this brief incorrectly stated that Umar had not given a speech since 2016.more than a year without releasing an audio speech. [For more on al Shabaab’s October 1 attack on a US base in Somalia, read the October 1 Africa File.]

The Islamic State in Somalia *pledged allegiance to Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Quraishi, the successor of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and new leader of the Islamic State, amid a wave of new pledges from Islamic State affiliates worldwide. The Somali group published photos of fighters pledging allegiance to Abu Ibrahim on November 4. Islamic State affiliates in Yemen, Bangladesh, the Sinai Peninsula, and Pakistan also released pledges on November 4.

Al Shabaab conducted more improvised-explosive-device (IED) attacks in 2019 than in any other period in the group’s history. A November 2019 UN panel of experts report noted that al Shabaab increased its IED attacks by roughly one-third in 2019. The panel also confirmed that al Shabaab has been producing homemade explosives since at least 2017. The group historically did not have this capability and instead modified captured military-grade explosives. The panel also raised concerns about al Shabaab’s infiltration of Somali federal and local government ministries.

Al Shabaab’s insurgency in Somalia is stalemated, but this stalemate is eroding in al Shabaab’s favor as African Union peacekeeping forces draw down ahead of their scheduled withdrawal in 2021. Domestic political turmoil in multiple Somali Federal Member States is drawing the attention of security forces away from counter–al Shabaab efforts and creating new opportunities for instability that al Shabaab will likely exploit. The Somali Federal Government (SFG)—the primary US counterterrorism partner in Somalia—has tense relationships with most of the five Federal Member States. For example, a prolonged political crisis in Galmudug State in north-central Somalia risks drawing Africa Union Mission to Somalia, SFG, and local security forces away from counter–al Shabaab efforts in that region. Clashes between SFG forces and a local militia *resumed in Galmudug in October and early November.

Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

October 29 Briefing

US forces killed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, in northwestern Syria on October 26. Baghdadi’s death strikes a serious, but not decisive, blow to his group. The Islamic State has a global organization that includes footholds across Africa, especially in regions facing instability, conflict, and poor governance.

The Islamic State is not defeated in Africa because the conditions that enabled its rise remain (Figure 1). The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and other ideologically aligned groups and individuals, draws strength not from controlling terrain but from establishing relationships with populations made vulnerable by governance failures and violence. These conditions are spreading in Africa and, if allowed to fester and escalate, will allow the Salafi-jihadi movement to strengthen.

  • North Africa: Islamic State supporters this month planned a major attack in Morocco, which has largely been spared major Salafi-jihadi attacks since the early 2000s. The group retains a foothold in Libya, its historical hub in Africa. Counterterrorism efforts have degraded the Islamic State in Libya since 2016, but the country’s ongoing civil war is generating popular grievances and security vacuums that allow the group to reorganize and increase recruitment. The Islamic State is also sustaining a low-level insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The group has lost much of its ability to attack in Algeria and Tunisia—except for unsophisticated individual attacks—but is positioned to exploit mass political instability in those countries should it arise.
  • West Africa: The Salafi-jihadi movement, including an Islamic State affiliate, is spreading rapidly in the western Sahel region, where ethnic and resource conflicts have escalated and states have weakened in recent years. The Islamic State’s largest African affiliate has established a proto-state in northeastern Nigeria.
  • East Africa: The Islamic State has a foothold in northern Somalia and may have recently attempted to attack neighboring Ethiopia, which faces rising ethnic violence that Salafi-jihadi groups may exploit. The conflict in Somalia is stalemated but will evolve in favor of Salafi-jihadi groups as governance falters and regional peacekeeping forces draw down.
  • Central and Southeastern Africa: The Islamic State is expanding its footprint by recognizing extant armed groups in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and northern Mozambique.

 [Read a recent assessment of the Islamic State’s global organization from the Institute for the Study of War.]

 

Figure 1. Islamic State Provinces and Salafi-Jihadi Insurgencies in Africa: October 2019

 

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

 

Read Further On:

West Africa

North Africa

East Africa

 

At a Glance: The Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated October 29, 2019

Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding with the end of counter–Islamic State operations in Syria and the withdrawal of US troops in October 2019. This withdrawal sets conditions for the return of the Islamic State, even as the organization recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in US operations in late October. The US withdrawal has also damaged America’s reputation with current and potential counterterrorism partners wary of suffering the same fate as the abandoned Syrian Kurdish forces. The US administration also seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, a course that will likely be delayed rather than altered by the breakdown of talks with the Taliban. However, the Salafi-jihadi movement continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations. The return of African Salafi-jihadis from prisons in Syria will likely accelerate these trends.

The Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in the last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents over the next 12–18 months.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April, will continue to fuel the Salafi-jihadi comeback for at least the next several months, possibly allowing the Islamic State or al Qaeda to regain some of the territory they controlled before major operations against them from 2016 to 2019. The Islamic State’s comeback in Libya is part of its global effort to reconstitute capabilities after military defeats, an effort that the group’s late leader, Baghdadi, sought to galvanize in a September audio message. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is rapidly eroding, and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in the eyes of their people.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness — such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown.

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

West Africa

Mali and Burkina Faso

The Salafi-jihadi movement is expanding more rapidly in the western Sahel than in any other African region as communal violence and state fragility spread. The movement’s epicenter in this region is Mali. Salafi-jihadi groups are active in the country’s north and have spread into the country’s center, where ethnic-based violence has increased in the past two years. Neighboring Burkina Faso is destabilizing rapidly as Salafi-jihadi groups take root in its north and east. Several Salafi-jihadi factions are cooperating, particularly in the Mali–Burkina Faso border area, to drive out security forces and establish themselves as the de facto governing power. The violence is causing a humanitarian crisis that has included retaliatory massacres of civilians in central Mali and mass displacement in Burkina Faso. 

A  Salafi-jihadi group in central Mali negotiated a local cease-fire to establish itself as a more effective alternative to the Malian state. The Macina Liberation Front (MLF), a component of AQIM’s Sahelian affiliate Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), has stoked ethnic violence between the Fulani and Dogon in central Mali’s Mopti Region in recent years. The MLF and its leader, charismatic preacher Amadou Koufa, seek to delegitimize the state and present the MLF as the Fulani community’s defender. Koufa announced a cease-fire with the Dogon ethnic militia Dan Na Ambassagou in early October, outlining conditions that include ending hostilities toward the Fulani and accepting the MLF’s jurisprudence. Dogon leaders and the MLF reportedly reached an agreement in late October, and Dogon leaders have since demonstrated goodwill toward the Fulani.

The MLF has also increased proselytization in an attempt to win over new followers and demonstrate the Malian government’s inability to respond. MLF members toured mosques in villages in the Koulikoro region, north of the capital Bamako region, and in Mopti. MLF preachers claimed to espouse Islam’s “true values” and tapped into anti-colonial and anti-Western narratives. 

Koufa is an important player in the Salafi-jihadi base in the Sahel, which unifies Salafi-jihadi group members and supporters across organizational divides. Koufa mentored the founder of the Burkinabe Salafi-jihadi group Ansar al Islam, for example, and participated in the merger to form JNIM in March 2017. His ability to mobilize local grievances, particularly around Fulani ethnic identity, has enabled the MLF to become the most active JNIM faction. (See Figure 2.)

 

Figure 2. The Salafi-Jihadi Base in the Sahel

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

Competition between JNIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) for fighters in Mali has caused intergroup friction but will not disrupt de-confliction and occasional cooperation between the groups. ISGS leaders reportedly banned its fighters from listening to Koufa’s audio recordings to prevent defections. The ban followed the defection of an ISGS commander and his brigade to JNIM in mid-2019. Personality-driven leadership disputes have defined the fracturing of Sahelian Salafi-jihadi groups in the past. ISGS emir Abu Walid al Sahraoui initially split from AQIM in 2011 and participated in a series of mergers and splinters leading to his pledge of allegiance to the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2016. ISGS has weathered the defection of other brigade leaders in the past.  

Meanwhile, Salafi-jihadi groups continue to degrade security and increase their freedom of movement in rural areas of northern Burkina Faso. An attack on October 26 killed 15 civilians in Pobe-Mengao and forced civilians to flee to the Soum Province capital, Djibo, exacerbating an already widespread displacement crisis. [For more on Salafi-jihadi lines of effort in northern Burkina Faso, see the October 16 Africa File.]

Forecast: Salafi-jihadi groups will continue to take control of populations in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso, where they may establish de facto governance and ultimately a proto-state. Militants will target military positions and infrastructure in the Malian-Burkinabe border region to increase their freedom of movement there. The MLF will increase its presence in the Koulikoro region but will avoid encroaching rapidly on the capital to avoid generating a Malian government response that would disrupt its governance project. (Updated October 29, 2019)

 

 

North Africa

Morocco

An Islamic State cell planned an attack in Morocco’s capital city and may have intended to establish an Islamic State wilayat (province) in the country. Moroccan authorities disrupted a cell that was planning a bombing at the Casablanca port in late October. Members of the cell had recorded pledges to the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and promised to found a branch of the group called “Wilayat Islamic Maghreb.” The cell’s leader had previously attempted to join the Islamic State affiliate in the Sahel. The leader of the cell was in contact with Islamic State members on social media and may have met with a Syrian Islamic State emissary who provided logistical support.

The Islamic State has not conducted a major attack inside Morocco. Since 2015, Moroccan authorities have regularly disrupted cells of would-be Islamic State attackers. The first Islamic State–inspired killing in Morocco occurred in December 2018. The murderers of two Scandinavian tourists pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, but the Islamic State neither claimed nor promoted the attack.

 

Libya

The protracted battle for Tripoli, Libya’s capital, is degrading security across Libya. The Libyan National Army (LNA) militia coalition, led by Khalifa Haftar, launched an offensive to seize Tripoli in April 2019 and has yet to breach the city’s defenses, even with significant support from Russia, the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Haftar’s campaign, whether it succeeds or fails, will benefit the Salafi-jihadi movement in Libya. The civil war has destabilized parts of Libya where Salafi-jihadi militants are active, notably the far southwest. The Islamic State and AQIM have havens and access to smuggling and trafficking routes in this region and have attempted to recruit from local populations.

The Islamic State’s increased recruitment in recent months necessitated a series of US airstrikes to curtail the threat in the past month. Even if Haftar succeeds, his methods—including an overly broad definition of who is a terrorist—will fuel a long-term Salafi-jihadi  insurgency.

The UN-backed peace process in Libya remains stalled. Plans for a conference in Germany to resume this process have been delayed. The US is actively sustaining its partnerships with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) on the economy, development, and counterterrorism, but these are stopgap measures without a credible effort to end the civil war. The GNA now faces popular backlash from a teacher strike as it attempts to curb bloated public spending.

Russia is exploiting the absence of a cohesive American and European policy on Libya to push for the conflict’s resolution in a way that secures Russian interests. Russia helped bankroll Haftar’s Tripoli offensive and has since increased military support in an attempt to break the stalemate. Russian officials have simultaneously sustained ties with the GNA, whose officials participated in the Kremlin’s high-profile Africa summit in Sochi this month. Russia’s interests in Libya include acquiring military basing or expanding access to Mediterranean naval facilities, casting itself as a peacemaker and alternative to the West, drawing neighboring Egypt away from the US, reactivating Qaddafi-era economic deals and securing new ones, and securing influence over hydrocarbon resources that in turn increase its leverage over Europe. [For more on Russia’s campaign in Libya and in Africa more broadly, see the October 16 Africa File.]

Forecast: The UN-led peace process in Libya is unlikely to succeed as Libyan factions and their foreign backers remain committed to military campaigns to secure their objectives. Russia will raise its profile as a potential broker and may attempt to facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict that secures its interests, particularly if Haftar’s offensive remains stalled. Separately, the Islamic State may attempt an attack in the coming weeks to prove its continued strength but will otherwise reduce its activity for several months while recovering from US strikes’ effects. The Islamic State will continue its recruitment efforts in southwestern Libya. (Last updated October 16, 2019)

 

Tunisia

In the past several years, Counterterrorism operations have limited the ability of Salafi-jihadi groups to conduct attacks in Tunisia. For example, militants failed to conduct attacks during two rounds of voting in Tunisia’s presidential elections in September and October despite threats. Grievances that feed Salafi-jihadi recruitment persist, however, and the potential for instability that could galvanize the Salafi-jihadi movement remains. Tunisia faces serious economic problems that its nascent democratic government has struggled to address.

Tunisian security forces continued to attrite the leadership of AQIM’s Tunisian affiliate. This attrition has limited the group’s ability to conduct offensive operations in the past several years. Tunisian forces killed Murad al Chayeb, a leader of the Uqba ibn Nafa’a Brigade, in Kasserine governorate in western Tunisia on October 20. The group’s activity is largely defensive and focused on securing its haven in western Tunisia. It may still be attempting offensive operations, however. A Tunisian operation that killed three senior militants on September 2 may have disrupted a planned attack coinciding with the start of the presidential election season.

Forecast: Leadership losses will prevent AQIM’s Tunisian affiliate from conducting an offensive attack without widespread instability in Tunisia. Islamic State cells in Tunisia will attempt attacks and are more likely to succeed, but any attack will likely be unsophisticated. (Updated on October 29, 2019)

 

Algeria

 Algerian legal professionals are striking to protest the executive’s interference in the judiciary in the lead-up to December elections. The Algerian justice ministry reshuffled half the country’s judges and prosecutors earlier in October, in a move seen as an attempt to shape magistrates’ oversight of the upcoming elections.

The political situation in Algeria has been deadlocked since protests began in February and led to the ouster of longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. Military and political leaders are advancing plans for December elections to resolve the ongoing political crisis. Protesters and political opposition have resisted the army’s push for quick elections, which they fear will solidify the army’s current power.

Forecast: The political deadlock in Algeria is unsustainable and will reach a turning point in the coming months. Elections will likely occur and establish a puppet government while the military retains control. The elections will not resolve the legitimacy crisis and may lead to violent unrest, particularly if security forces crack down more aggressively on protesters and detain more protest leaders. These are potential flashpoints that could lead to violence between protesters and security forces, setting conditions for a full military takeover or an insurgency. (Updated September 17, 2019)

 

 

East Africa

Somalia

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, al Shabaab, is waging an insurgency in Somalia that threatens neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. A stalemate is eroding in al Shabaab’s favor as African Union peacekeeping forces draw down ahead of their scheduled withdrawal in 2021. Al Shabaab seeks to expand its insurgency into Kenya and Ethiopia, in part as punishment for their participation in the peacekeeping mission. The group also seeks to radicalize Muslim communities in Kenya and Ethiopia. Al Shabaab frequently attacks security forces in eastern Kenya and has conducted multiple high-profile attacks on soft targets in the country since 2013. Al Shabaab also recently plotted attacks in Ethiopia and may be seeking to increase its operations there. [For more on the Salafi-jihadi threat to Ethiopia, read the October 1 Africa File.]

Al Shabaab is beginning to use Mombasa, a major Kenyan port, as an operations hub. Mombasa-based cells have attempted multiple attacks in recent weeks. (See Figure 3.) Al Shabaab recruits from Mombasa but has plotted few attacks there since a Kenyan crackdown in 2014. Police prevented what would have been one of al Shabaab’s largest-ever attacks in Mombasa in early October. A recent Kenyan most wanted list indicates that al Shabaab operational planners come from coastal Kenyan communities rather than Kenya’s ethnic Somali areas, indicating that non-Somalis in al Shabaab are taking on a larger role in attack planning. [For more on al Shabaab’s recent plot in Mombasa, read the October 16 Africa File.]

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt another high-profile attack along the Kenyan coast within the next 12 months and will activate cells for smaller, more frequent attacks in the area. Al Shabaab will continue recruiting from the coast while simultaneously expanding its recruitment among Muslim-minority communities in Kenya’s interior. (Updated October 28, 2019)

 

Figure 3. Kenyan Security Forces Pursue al Shabaab Cells in Mombasa

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

Several al Qaeda organs praised recent al Shabaab attacks in media, signaling ongoing messaging coordination. Al Shabaab, al Qaeda General Command, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula each released statements about al Shabaab attacks on a US base and an Italian convoy in Somalia on October 1. The al Qaeda General Command statement also called for retaliation against the US for the recent deployment of US forces to Saudi Arabia. Al Shabaab’s attacks on Western positions in Somalia serve the global Salafi-jihadi movement’s broader goal to expel Western forces from Muslim lands. [For more on al Shabaab’s October 1 attack on US and Italian forces in Somalia, read the October 1 Africa File.]

 

Ethiopia

Africa’s second most populous country, Ethiopia, faces mounting instability. A turbulent political transition is exacerbating the ethnic strife that gives Ethiopia one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced people and creates opportunities for the Salafi-jihadi movement to spread. The country’s security sector is fragmentingElections and the 2020 census could trigger a wider conflict. Increasing geopolitical competition in the Horn of Africa risks compounding Ethiopia’s instability.

Deadly protests in Ethiopia reflect growing divisions within Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s base and could lead to broader destabilization. The core of Abiy’s base is the Muslim-majority Oromo community. Abiy has struggled to appease Oromo hard-liners and youth, risking his legitimacy. Protests broke out after a prominent Oromo Abiy critic accused police of attempting to arrest him. Between October 23 and 27, 67 people died in protests and ethnic clashes in south-central Ethiopia and the capital Addis Ababa. Oromo youth may become increasingly susceptible to recruitment by Salafi-jihadi groups if they lose faith in the state.

Forecast: Ethiopia will experience increasing levels of ethnic violence over the next 12 months as ethnonationalist parties stoke tensions ahead of a contentious census and elections in 2020. Hard-line Oromo rebels, some of whom are likely already engaged in low-level militant activity, will increase attacks against minorities in the Oromia region, further polarizing the Oromo community. (As of October 28,2019 )

Ethiopia threatened Egypt with war over a Nile dam dispute. Ethiopia and Egypt are deadlocked over the construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt fears will threaten its water supply. Egypt has previously considered military strikes to prevent the dam’s construction, and Ethiopia has accused Cairo of being behind a foiled attack against the dam in 2017. Abiy entered office in 2018 intent on peacefully resolving the dispute but has become more bellicose in recent weeks. Abiy claimed that Ethiopia is prepared to go to war over the dam on October 22 while stressing that a diplomatic resolution is preferable.

Russia is attempting to mediate the dispute to increase its influence in the Horn of Africa. Russian President Vladimir Putin separately met with Abiy and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi on the sidelines of the first-ever Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, Russia, on October 24–25. Putin offered to mediate the dispute, possibly to counter a US mediation offer that Egypt accepted on October 23. Sisi and Abiy agreed to resume talks during the Sochi summit, but neither has formally responded to Putin’s offer.

Putin has strong ties with Sisi and seeks to develop Russia’s relationship with Ethiopia, which is one of the world’s fastest growing economies and a former Soviet client state. Ethiopia recently signed a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with Russia. Abiy also agreed to purchase a Russian air-defense system during the Sochi summit, possibly to deter Egypt from attacking the dam.

Forecast: Egypt will attempt to sabotage the dam’s construction, possibly by sponsoring attacks against the dam by Ethiopian rebel groups. Egypt and Ethiopia will attempt to sway Sudan by competing for influence within its new regime, further destabilizing the country’s fragile transition. (Updated October 28, 2019)

 

Mozambique

Salafi-jihadi militants have waged an insurgency in northern Mozambique since 2017. Some of these militants operate under the banner of a new Islamic State affiliate in Central Africa that also claims attacks by an Islamist rebel group in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Mozambican security forces are pursuing a heavy-handed response to the insurgency that will exacerbate local populations’ grievances against the state, likely driving more support to the militants.

Disputed elections may destabilize Mozambique and provide opportunities for Salafi-jihadi militants to expand their insurgency. disputed presidential poll may lead to the collapse of an August peace agreement between the guerrilla-movement-turned-opposition-party Renamo and the ruling Frelimo party. Renamo rejected incumbent Filipe Nyusi’s victory in the October 15 poll, accussing Frelimo of fraud, violence, and intimidation. Renamo officials had threatened to fight in the event of a disputed election.

Forecast: Renamo elements will begin a low-level insurgency in the next three months that will divert Mozambican security resources away from efforts to combat Salafi-jihadi militants in the country’s north.

 

Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

October 16 Briefing

The US withdrawal from Syria will likely do catastrophic damage to America’s global leadership and value as an ally. It will also likely fast-track the Islamic State’s return in Syria and signal weakness that will embolden Salafi-jihadi militants globally. It has already energized US adversaries; Russian forces are currently backfilling American positions in northeastern Syria.

The American retreat from Syria has parallels in Africa. In Libya, the US has failed to support the internationally recognized government and US counterterrorism partner, the Government of National Accord (GNA). Forces led by would-be strongman Khalifa Haftar attacked the GNA in Tripoli in April 2019, torpedoing the UN-led peace process. Haftar’s forces, which have significant backing from regional states and Russia, are besieging many of the same militiamen who fought with US support against the Islamic State in Libya in 2016. The GNA has few options but to seek Turkish military support and Russian *mediation. Meanwhile, Salafi-jihadi militants are recruiting as the war drags on.

Russia’s potential kingmaking in Libya reflects greater ambitions. The Kremlin is expanding its influence in Africa to advance a number of strategic and grand strategic objectives. As Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio from the Institute for the Study of War argue, these objectives include expanding Russia’s military footprint, mitigating sanctions’ effects, and establishing a “network of geopolitical alliances and shared global information space” that positions Russia as a “revitalized great power” and challenger to the US-led world order. Vladimir Putin will host the first landmark Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on October 23–24. Russia’s campaign in Africa endangers US security interests on the continent, among them counterterrorism objectives.

Any Kremlin effort dubbed counterterrorism should give us pause for two reasons. First, the Kremlin frequently uses counterterrorism as justification for establishing a military footprint that primarily serves other objectives and is not sufficient to conduct a counterterrorism mission. (See Syria.) Second, the Kremlin actually undermines counterterrorism objectives by enabling harsh crackdowns on vulnerable populations and strengthening repressive regimes, therefore worsening conditions that drive Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in the long term. 

Russian engagement is increasing in three hubs of Salafi-jihadi activity in Africa (Libya, the western Sahel, and Nigeria) and Mozambique, where a Salafi-jihadi threat is emerging. This engagement is likely intended to develop demand in these countries for Russia’s military services and undermine a perception of the West as a reliable partner.

  • Libya. The Kremlin is attempting to help Haftar’s forces break the stalemate in Tripoli by deploying private military contractors (PMCs) on the front line. Foreign support has yet to deliver a Haftar victory but is prolonging the conflict, causing mounting civilian harm and allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to operate and recruit. Russia’s interests in Libya include acquiring military basing or expanding access to Mediterranean naval facilities, casting itself as a peacemaker and alternative to the West, drawing neighboring Egypt away from the US, reactivating Qaddafi-era economic deals and securing new ones, and securing influence over hydrocarbon resources that in turn increase leverage over Europe.
  • Western Sahel (Mali and Burkina Faso). Russia signed military cooperation agreements with Burkina Faso in 2018 and Mali in 2019. Sahelian governments and a Malian civil society group have appealed to Russia for security assistance. Funding and operational challenges for the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force, paired with indicators that Western countries—particularly the US and France—seek to draw down their footprint in West Africa, create favorable conditions for Russian influence to grow. Russia’s interests in the Sahel include securing access to natural resources.
  • Nigeria. The Nigerian government seeks to purchase military aircraft and other materiel from Russia to pursue a militarized counterterrorism approach. The US has withheld the sale of light-attack aircraft to Nigeria due to human rights violations, an important condition that Washington upholds but the Kremlin does not. The Nigerian counterterrorism approach has harmed vulnerable populations and encouraged some communities to accept alternative governance from Salafi-jihadi groups. Russia’s interests in Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—include establishing military cooperation and developing economic partnerships, notably for nuclear energy.
  • Mozambique. The Kremlin is reportedly providing military equipment and training to Mozambican security forces attempting to counter a nascent Salafi-jihadi insurgency in the country’s north. This support will enable Mozambican forces to continue a counterproductive collective punishment approach that will enflame the insurgency over time. Russia’s interests in Mozambique include access to natural gas fields.

The Kremlin will continue to deliver more security help, such as limited deployments of PMCs and military advisers, to more African countries. It will amplify these limited investments with information campaigns. While Russia cannot deliver military or other aid on the scale of the West, it will leverage limited investments to gain influence over African countries’ decision-making to influence areas of core Russian interest, including military sales and security reach.

Nataliya Bugayova from the Institute for the Study of War contributed insight to this brief.

Figure 1. Overlapping Threats: Russian Security Cooperation and the Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Further On:

West Africa

North Africa

East Africa


 At a Glance: the Salafi-jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated October 16, 2019

Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding with the end of counter–Islamic State operations in Syria and the withdrawal of US troops in October 2019. This withdrawal sets conditions for the rapid return of the Islamic State. It also damaged America’s reputation with current and potential counterterrorism partners wary of suffering the same fate as the abandoned Syrian Kurdish forces. The US administration also seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, a course that will likely be delayed rather than altered by the breakdown of talks with the Taliban. However, the Salafi-jihadi movement continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations. The return of African Salafi-jihadists from prisons in Syria will likely accelerate these trends.

The Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in the last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents over the next 12–18 months.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April, will continue to fuel the Salafi-jihadi comeback for at least the next several months, possibly allowing the Islamic State or al Qaeda to regain some of the territory they controlled before major operations against them from 2016 to 2019. The Islamic State’s comeback in Libya is part of its global effort to reconstitute capabilities after military defeats, an effort that the group’s leader, Abubakr al Baghdadi, sought to galvanize in a September audio message. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is rapidly eroding, and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in the eyes of their people.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness — such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown.

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

 

West Africa

Mali and Burkina Faso

The Salafi-jihadi movement is expanding more rapidly in the western Sahel than in any other African region as communal violence and state fragility spread. The movement’s epicenter in this region is Mali. Salafi-jihadi groups are active in the country’s north and have spread into the country’s center, where ethnic-based violence has increased in the past two years. Neighboring Burkina Faso is destabilizing rapidly as Salafi-jihadi groups take root in its north and east. Several Salafi-jihadi factions are cooperating, particularly in the Mali–Burkina Faso border area, to drive out security forces and establish themselves as the de facto governing power. The violence is causing a humanitarian crisis that includes retaliatory massacres of civilians in central Mali and mass displacement in Burkina Faso. 

Large-scale Salafi-jihadi attacks are causing popular backlash against Sahel governments. Hundreds of Malians protested in the aftermath of near-simultaneous attacks on Malian Army and G5 Sahel Joint Force bases near the Burkinabe border on September 30, citing the government’s failure to deliver security and transparency. Attacks in Burkina Faso have also generated anti-government backlash. An August 29 attack on a Burkinabe army base harmed morale and stoked political jockeying. [See prior Africa Files for more on the September 30 attacks in Boulikessi and Mondoro, Mali, and the August 29 attack in Koutougou, Burkina Faso.]

Popular dissatisfaction with the Malian security response and the French intervention in Mali, the subject of recent protests, is creating an opportunity for greater Russian military involvement in Mali. A civil society organization called the “Malian Patriots Group” has made several petitions calling for Russian military support to resolve the deteriorating security situation in Mali. This latest petition follows the signing of a Russia-Mali security cooperation agreement in late June 2019.

Forecast: Russia will likely deliver security assistance to Mali in the coming year by either deploying PMCs or providing counterterrorism training. (As of October 16, 2019)

A Salafi-jihadi leader in central Mali announced a ceasefire with a rival militia that will bolster Salafi-jihadi governance credentials. Amadou Koufa, the leader of an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)–aligned faction from the Fulani ethnic group, announced a cease-fire with the Dogon ethnic militia Dan Na Ambassagou, though its implementation is unclear. Koufa’s group has stoked ethnic violence in central Mali’s Mopti Region in recent years to delegitimize the state and present itself as the Fulani community’s defender.

Salafi-jihadi militants in Burkina Faso are pursuing two major lines of effort to increase their freedom of movement and control over northern Burkinabe populations. (See Figure 2.) A cluster of Salafi-jihadi activity around Djibo, the capital of Soum Province, indicates that militants will likely mount an attack to drive out the remaining Burkinabe military presence in that region. Further south in Bam Province, Salafi-jihadi groups have nearly completely degraded the government’s authority and are now targeting local leadership and self-defense groups.

 

Figure 2. Salafi-Jihadi Militants Degrade Security and Consolidate Control in Northern Burkina Faso

Source: American Enterprise Institute

An unprecedented attack on a mosque in northern Burkina Faso may be intended to trigger retaliatory attacks. Unidentified attackers killed 15 worshippers in Salmossi in Oudalan Province in northern Burkina Faso on October 11. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) may be responsible, as groups affiliated with al Qaeda generally eschew attacks on places of worship. However, this kind of attack would be unusual for ISGS. Militants began a campaign of attacks targeting Christians in Burkina Faso in 2019 and may be attempting to stoke confessional violence.

The death of senior Burkinabe Salafi-jihadi leaders may temporarily disrupt attacks in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso. A reported raid may have killed the leader of Ansar al Islam, Jafar Dicko, and the group’s deputy leader Oumarou Bolly on October 1. Ansar al Islam may have participated in the September 30 attacks in Mali and has played a key role in the spread of the Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Burkina Faso since 2016.

Forecast: Salafi-jihadi militants will continue to take control of populations in northern Burkina Faso and may ultimately establish de facto governance in the area. They will likely mount a large assault on Djibo, the remaining Burkinabe military position in Soum Province, in the coming months to consolidate control. Militants based in Mali or Burkina Faso will attack tourist or Christian targets in Gulf of Guinea countries in the next 6–12 months. (Updated October 16, 2019)

 

Nigeria

A Salafi-jihadi insurgency is strengthening in the northeast of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. The Nigerian government, despite repeated claims of victory, has ceded much of the remote northeast to militants, currently split into two main factions — the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWA) and Boko Haram — which also operate across Nigeria’s border in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. The Nigerian state is preoccupied with other domestic security and political challenges and is unlikely to rectify the conditions that led to Boko Haram’s formation and ISWA’s growth.

The Nigerian Army has adopted a new strategy of retreating to “super camps” and leaving militants unchallenged in the countryside. The official strategy is intended to concentrate well-armed and mobile fighting forces in fortified positions from which they can rapidly respond to militant activity. In effect, soldiers are withdrawing to fortress-like positions and allowing militants—who are often better armed than the army—to conduct unchallenged attacks on towns in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. ISWA has temporarily seized several towns in Borno and Yobe States since the super camp strategy began and has featured these raids in its propaganda.

The new governor of Borno State approved mobilizing thousands of Nigerian hunters to fight Boko Haram and ISWA. Nigerian authorities prevented a similar operation five years ago. The hunters are intended to be more effective than the Nigerian military because of their knowledge of the local terrain. However, they may lack sufficient supply and armaments for the mission.

The Nigerian Army has cracked down on international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) after accusing them of aiding Boko Haram and ISWA. The army closed the offices of Action Against Hunger and Mercy Corps in late September. ISWA kidnapped and executed an Action Against Hunger employee in the same period. The closure of NGOs will harm local populations. The army’s role in these closures may cause further grievances against the state and encourage more communities to tolerate ISWA as an alternative source of governance.

The Nigerian government is seeking a military cooperation agreement with Russia that would allow it to intensify a counterproductive strategy against ISWA and Boko Haram. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will attend the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on October 23–24. He is seeking a technical cooperation agreement to acquire helicopters, tanks, and other materiel. Russia is an attractive partner for the Nigerian government because it does not attach human rights conditions to its arms sales. The Obama administration blocked the sale of light-attack aircraft to Nigeria following a 2017 strike on a displaced persons’ camp. Attacks on civilian populations undermine counterterrorism efforts by delegitimizing the Nigerian government and allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to present themselves as defenders of vulnerable communities.

Forecast: The withdrawal of Nigerian forces to super camps will allow ISWA to expand its governance in Borno State. ISWA’s focus on delivering governance in its areas of control has already convinced some civilians that ISWA provides a viable alternative to the largely absent Nigerian state. The Islamic State will use ISWA’s proto-state as evidence of success as it seeks to recover from military losses in Iraq and Syria. (Updated September 17, 2019)

 

 

 

North Africa

Libya

Russia increased military support for its preferred Libyan partner, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), in an attempt to break the stalemate around Tripoli and resolve the Libya conflict in a way that favors Russian interests. Russian PMCs from the Wagner group joined LNA forces on the Tripoli front-line and have since suffered casualties. The reported presence of Russian aircraft at a Libyan airbase may indicate that official Russian military personnel are also present. The Kremlin seeks to position itself as a broker even while increasing support for the LNA.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister and Libya’s foreign minister *discussed the countries’ bilateral relationship and the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit on October 10. Russia’s interests in Libya include acquiring military basing or expanding access to Mediterranean naval facilities, casting itself as a peacemaker and alternative to the West, drawing neighboring Egypt away from the US, reactivating Qaddafi-era economic deals and securing new ones, and securing influence over hydrocarbon resources that in turn increase its leverage over Europe.

Haftar’s campaign, whether it succeeds or fails, will benefit the Salafi-jihadi movement in Libya. The LNA launched its offensive on Tripoli in April and has yet to breach the city’s defenses, even with significant support from Russia, the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the civil war has destabilized parts of Libya where Salafi-jihadi militants are active, notably the far southwest. The Islamic State and AQIM have havens and access to smuggling and trafficking routes in this region and have attempted to recruit from local populations. The Islamic State’s increased recruitment in recent months necessitated a series of US airstrikes to curtail the threat in the past month. Even if Haftar succeeds, his methods—including an overly broad definition of who is a terrorist—will fuel a long-term Salafi-jihadi insurgency.

The UN-backed peace process in Libya remains stalled. Plans for a conference in Germany to resume this process have been delayed. The US is actively sustaining its partnerships with the GNA on the economy, development, and counterterrorism, but these are stopgap measures without a credible effort to end the civil war.

Forecast: The UN-led peace process in Libya is unlikely to succeed as Libyan factions and their foreign backers remain committed to military campaigns to secure their objectives. Russia will raise its profile as a potential broker and may attempt to facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict that secures its interests, particularly if Haftar’s offensive remains stalled. Separately, the Islamic State may attempt an attack in the coming weeks to prove its continued strength but will otherwise reduce its activity for several months while recovering from US strikes’ effects. The Islamic State will continue its recruitment efforts in southwestern Libya. (Updated October 16, 2019)

 

Tunisia

Counterterrorism operations have limited the ability of Salafi-jihadi groups to conduct attacks in Tunisia in the past several years. For example, militants failed to conduct attacks during two rounds of voting in Tunisia’s president elections in September and October despite threats. Grievances that feed Salafi-jihadi recruitment persist, however, and the potential for instability that could galvanize the Salafi-jihadi movement remains. Tunisia faces serious economic problems that its nascent democratic government has struggled to address.

Salafi-jihadi militants in Tunisia may be shifting to low-level individual attacks that require less coordination than past high-profile operations and bombings. A suspected Salafi-jihadi sympathizer killed a French national and injured a Tunisian soldier in a stabbing attack in Bizerte in northern Tunisia on October 14. This follows a similar “extremist” stabbing that killed a policeman and injured a soldier in Bizerte on September 23. A similar attack occurred in Tozeur in southwestern Tunisia earlier in September.

Tunisians selected their next president. Law professor Kais Saied will become the president of Tunisia following a decisive victory over media mogul Nabil Karoui in a run-off election. Saied is a political novice who has promised to improve Tunisia’s ailing economy and fight corruption.

Forecast: Leadership losses will prevent AQIM’s Tunisian affiliate from conducting an offensive attack during the Tunisian election season. Islamic State cells in Tunisia will attempt attacks in this same period and are more likely to succeed, but any attack will likely be unsophisticated. (Updated on September 17, 2019)

 

 

 

East Africa

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa, al Shabaab, is waging an insurgency in Somalia that threatens neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. A stalemate is eroding in al Shabaab’s favor as African Union peacekeeping forces draw down ahead of their scheduled withdrawal in 2021. Al Shabaab seeks to expand its insurgency into Kenya and Ethiopia, in part as punishment for their participation in the peacekeeping mission.

The group also seeks to radicalize Muslim communities in Kenya and Ethiopia. Al Shabaab frequently attacks security forces in eastern Kenya and has conducted multiple high-profile attacks on soft targets in the country since 2013. Al Shabaab also recently plotted attacks in Ethiopia and may be seeking to increase its operations there. [For more on the Salafi-jihadi threat to Ethiopia, read the October 1 Africa File.]

Al Shabaab attempted one of its most ambitious attacks ever along Kenya’s southern coast in October. Kenyan police foiled an al Shabaab plot in the port city of Mombasa on October 1. Police killed multiple al Shabaab suspects and arrested others days after police warned of an al Shabaab cell traveling from Somalia. The cell’s planned targets included Mombasa’s international airport, the Kenya Ports Authority headquarters, and a railway station. Al Shabaab recruits from Mombasa but has not conducted many attacks there since 2014.

Multiple al Shabaab cells in Kenya may have facilitated the plot. The suspects may have planned to use UN or police vehicles that al Shabaab militants had seized hundreds of miles away in northern Kenya. (See Figure 3.) The attackers had support from al Shabaab members in Mombasa who likely belong to multiple ethnic groups, underscoring al Shabaab’s ability to recruit across a wide spectrum of Kenyan society.

Al Shabaab likely intended the attack to galvanize Somalis and coastal Kenyan Muslims. Anti-Kenyan sentiment is currently high in Somalia in part due to a Kenyan-Somali maritime dispute. Al Shabaab’s emir released a rare speech in September accusing Kenya of stealing Somali territory and exploiting its natural resources. The planned attack in Mombasa would have struck a symbolic blow against East Africa’s largest port. Al Shabaab may have also sought to incite a harsh Kenyan crackdown on coastal Muslims. Kenya’s heavy-handed efforts to suppress al Shabaab along the coast between 2012 and 2014 alienated many coastal Muslims and helped al Shabaab recruit from those communities.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt another high-profile attack along the Kenyan coast within the next 12 months and will activate cells for smaller, more frequent attacks in the area. Al Shabaab will continue recruiting from the coast while simultaneously expanding its recruitment among Muslim-minority communities in Kenya’s interior. (Updated October 16, 2019)

Figure 3. Al Shabaab Maintains Cells Throughout Kenya

Source: American Enterprise Institute

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